Authors: Catherine Merridale
They came with any tribute they were bidden to deliver, but they also carried gifts and bribes. Intricate rings, finely matched furs, hunting falcons from the steppe and jewelled drinking-cups were all welcomed by members of the khan’s extended family. The princes’ aim was to secure support in a complex struggle for supremacy at home. By the 1300s the major players on the Russian side were the principalities of Moscow and Tver. The latter city was the stronger in both military and strategic terms; it even boasted its own kremlin, a citadel with timber walls on a commanding promontory site. But Moscow’s relative weakness was no bar to its ambition, and the city sent frequent embassies south-east to Sarai. First came Daniil’s son, Yury of Moscow, who not only married the khan’s sister but engineered the murder of a fellow-prince: Mikhail of Tver was kicked to death, with the khan’s approval, in 1318. By these and other unsavoury means, including the conquest of several valuable Rus cities, Yury became the first of Moscow’s rulers to acquire the title and the rights of Grand Prince of Vladimir. But his own murder (like Mikhail’s, it took place at Sarai) brought his reign to a premature end in 1325. When it came to the turn of his younger brother, Ivan I, the groundwork was better laid. The youth had taken the road south in 1320, remaining at the Horde for eighteen months. It was a long stay, almost an apprenticeship, and Ivan used it to acquaint himself with the basic principles of Mongol law, the workings of the court, and a good deal else that influenced his later policy towards the continental superpower.
On his brother’s death, Ivan inherited the throne of Moscow but not the honoured title of Grand Prince of Vladimir. That passed back to Tver, but only for a brief, unnerving year. In 1327, the khan, Uzbek, sent his cousin to subdue the city, whose growing power was becoming wearisome. On that occasion, Tver’s walled fortress withstood the attack so successfully that even the Mongols gave up, though both sides sustained heavy losses. Ivan set off for Sarai again within months. His mission was to promise troops and support in a fresh campaign to capture Tver, and he probably took a supply of sable-pelts to underline his point. Uzbek, predictably, was charmed. In 1328 an army that included Mongols and soldiers from Moscow sacked Tver and forced its reigning prince, Alexander, to flee. The victorious troops loaded carts and saddlebags with plunder, and Ivan’s accession to the title of Grand Prince was sealed. In 1339, after a brief trial, the deposed prince Alexander of Tver was executed at Sarai. At the same time, on Grand Prince Ivan’s orders, the city bell of Tver was brought in triumph to the Moscow Kremlin and hung in its palace cathedral of the Saviour.
The medieval Russian chronicles tend to give Ivan I the benefit of a rose-tinted hindsight. ‘There came a great peace for forty years,’ wrote one source on his impact as grand prince. ‘The Christians found relief and appeasement away from the great troubles, the many oppressions, and from Tatar [i.e. Mongol] violence, and there was great peace in all the land.’
Even by medieval standards, this is largely hogwash. Ivan, after all, was the Mongols’ ally against Christian Tver; he may also have been Uzbek’s political apprentice. He was even noted for oppressions of his own, since one of his major selling-points, from the Mongol point of view, was the efficiency with which he collected the tribute that they were owed. He was, in fact, a tax-farmer, and he used force to guarantee prompt and generous payment. By squeezing silver from his fellow-princes, he made sure of Uzbek’s portion and kept the surplus to build up his army and to make his city rich. Anything that was left (and he was not the kind to tolerate a loss) was salted away for his own use, or at least that of his throne and court. It was a talent that earned him the nickname ‘Kalita’, or ‘Moneybags’, and though there have been some attempts to hint at his financial saintliness (the moneybags could, after all, have been used to distribute pennies to the poor), the title was not originally meant to flatter.
Moscow’s prosperity was self-reinforcing. When Tver’s prince was defeated, his boyars, the nobility who served him both in battle and at court, began to gravitate to Moscow, and each defector brought a levy of valuable troops and land. The balance between Tver and Moscow shifted permanently, in turn attracting more resources to the upstart court.
Ivan Kalita’s role as grand prince also offered far more than prestige. As the Mongols’ senior intermediary, he had a share of the profits made in Novgorod.
This was a valuable prize, for the northern city had continued to trade with the Baltic, and its merchants were among the wealthiest in the region. Novgorod was sophisticated, proud and ancient, but it could not resist the military pressure that Ivan applied, repeatedly, under the guise of collecting Mongol tribute. The worldly prince offered it protection, in the mafia understanding of the term, against potential threats from other regional armies. His boyars profited proportionately, and Moscow turned into the kind of place where anyone who had ambition simply had to live.
* * *
At last Moscow began to shed its backwoods feel. It was still a small place, no more than a mile across at its widest. Trees grew everywhere, despite the recent building-boom, and there was uncleared forest stretching off to both the west and south. A thriving trading district nestled to the south of the Kremlin hill, on the opposite bank of the river, and there were artisans’ quarters to the north and east, but the most striking civic landmarks were the massive walls, patched, pitted and scarred from successive fires, that defined Ivan’s fortress on the central hill. Since almost everything was made of timber (including Ivan’s palace), those fires were probably the city’s greatest enemy. The wooden fortress walls were smeared with clay, which reduced the risk of combustion, but other parts of Moscow burned repeatedly. Chronicles of the period (which are incomplete) record four major fires in fifteen years, including the catastrophes of 1337 (‘eighteen churches burned’), and 1343 (‘twenty-eight churches burned’).
The word ‘Kremlin’, which first appeared in Moscow at about this time, was not the city’s monopoly. It may have been coined for the stronghold of Novgorod’s vulnerable neighbour, Pskov, and it came to Moscow (and its rival, Tver) when craftsmen with experience from older towns were hired to build the fourteenth-century princes’ wooden walls.
Russian fortresses were nothing like the castles of the European west, let alone the familiar (usually gloomy-looking) Norman keep.
A fourteenth-century Austrian castle typically occupied 1,800 square yards; the Moscow Kremlin of Ivan Kalita’s time, which covered about 47 acres, was more than a hundred times larger.
The design followed the natural contours of the land, taking advantage of the river and the steepest banks, but a compound of this size was difficult to maintain. Almost invariably there was a corner somewhere that looked derelict, a gate that opened through a sea of mud. It was a measure of Ivan Kalita’s good relationship with Uzbek that he was able to secure permission to repair (and in effect, to replace) the ruins of the Kremlin walls in 1339. The defences that he ordered, twenty-foot beams of incorruptible new oak, were not quite the token barrier that the Mongols had originally envisaged.
The gates – also of oak – were equally imposing, and the fortress projected a regal atmosphere from a distance. But anyone who managed to enter it would have noticed a bucolic informality around the timber palaces inside. The Moscow Kremlin was laid out like a small town; in Ivan Kalita’s time it was usually known simply as the ‘city’ (
). Apart from the prince and his family, its most important residents were the boyars, whose rank was second only to the prince, and their extended families, whose pedigree often reached back as far as Ivan’s own.
A few wealthier merchants also had their homes inside the walls – there were already more than twenty principal houses on the hill – but though the compound was beginning to feel crowded by the expansive standards of the age, each wooden mansion stood in separate substantial grounds, allowing space for kitchens, store-rooms, stables, vegetable gardens, orchards and small livestock in their pens.
In later iconography, the Kremlin was imagined as an ante-room of heaven, but in Ivan Kalita’s day it would have reeked of mildewed fur and mould and long-fermented sweat.
But there must have been at least some trace of resinous incense, for the Kremlin was Moscow’s central religious site. It was already established as a focus of pilgrimage in 1262, when it was granted to Prince Daniil. The first recorded Kremlin monastery, dedicated to the Saviour, was located near the spot that the prince eventually chose for his palace, and an early church (probably attached to it) became the burial-place of Moscow’s original Daniilovich rulers.
Daniil himself may well have added the even more prestigious one that stood, at the beginning of Ivan Kalita’s reign, on the slightly higher ground beyond. This building seems to have been made of stone, and Ivan would have had to demolish it in 1326 to make way for his new cathedral.
The purpose of such projects was not merely to engage in a display of wealth. The fear of judgement and damnation was pervasive; it was already common, if death did not strike him too suddenly, for a prince to prepare for the next world by having himself tonsured under a new name, thereby distancing himself from any sin that he had perpetrated under the old one. The merit gained by founding any sacred building was incalculable. The time has come to introduce the final actor in this early drama, and he is a monk.
Metropolitan Peter played a decisive part in the Kremlin’s story. Officially, he had responsibility for all the Russian lands. His own birthplace was in the south, so theoretically he could have focused his mission on the old Rus heartland around the Dnieper. But Kiev had become a frontier-town, harried by constant steppe-based raids, and Peter’s predecessor had already moved the metropolitan’s main residence to the relative safety of Vladimir.
It was Peter, however, who shifted the focus of religious loyalty to Moscow. His motives for aligning himself with Ivan Kalita are lost in time, but the main one may have been antipathy to Tver. At the time of Peter’s appointment in 1308, Grand Prince Mikhail of Tver had an alternative candidate in mind, and he attempted to overturn the patriarch’s choice of Peter for the post of metropolitan by accusing the new man of simony, the medieval church’s version of corruption. The threat of prison was enough to prejudice Peter against Tver’s prince for life, and the priest, who evaded the charge, turned out to be at least as skilled a politician as his enemy.
Peter’s dislike of Tver made him Moscow’s natural ally, but it was only when Ivan came to the throne that he could forge a lasting alliance with the city’s ruler.
Before that, he had worked to build relations with Uzbek, visiting the Horde several times and consolidating a relationship of mutual respect and mutual political advantage.
Over the years, and almost always with the khan’s blessing, the shrewd metropolitan steadily replaced the church’s key appointments in the Russian lands with sympathizers of his own. At one point, he even frustrated one of Tver’s military campaigns by withholding his blessing from its troops as they awaited orders near Vladimir.
But he and Ivan also seem to have become good friends. Later chronicles insist that the pair liked to sit and talk alone.
Peter certainly acquired a residence (
) in the Kremlin in 1322, and spent increasing amounts of time there. When Ivan’s older brother Yury was murdered in 1325, it was Peter who conducted the burial, and as the metropolitan began to think of his own grave, the idea of Ivan’s Kremlin was not ruled out.
For the newly created prince, the honour was unprecedented, for his upstart city lacked a native saint, and as yet it had no pretensions to the charisma of Vladimir.
The scene that Ushakov would later paint unfolded on 4 August 1326. There was a special solemnity as the young prince Ivan and the ailing priest gathered with their entire court beside a new hole in the ground. Around them were supplies of rock and the oak for deep foundation piles. Their task was to lay the first stone of a church with an ambitious dome, the daughter and successor of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir. Some said that they were also marking the site of the metropolitan’s future grave, though Peter probably took a few months more to decide. In the end, however, his stone shrine was indeed built into the heart of the new cathedral. Ivan was at the Horde when the old man died that December, but he hurried back to attend a service on the half-completed site. The Kremlin had acquired its sacred centre and the sort of religious gravitas that only Kiev among the Russian cities had ever equalled. Moscow’s leaders lost no time establishing Peter’s credentials as a ‘wonder-worker’, and in 1339 he was officially declared to be the Kremlin’s first true saint.
Future historians of Moscow would now have something holy to put in the place of taxes and extortion when they needed a foundation myth.
* * *
Ivan’s Dormition Cathedral was not his last stone building on the Kremlin hill. In the next few years, his growing wealth enabled him to commission several more, including the Church of St John of the Ladder (1329) and the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael (1333). He also rebuilt (some say he founded) the Cathedral of the Saviour of the Forest (1330), replacing the Saviour Monastery’s existing wooden building with a fine stone structure that he could admire from his palace windows.
In all, it was a considered building programme, each element of which played a part in the Kremlin’s ritual life, and it had the welcome result that Moscow could now boast more stone churches than Tver.
But though the new foundations were to form the cardinal points of Moscow’s religious geography for centuries to come, their first incarnations (with the possible exception of the Dormition Cathedral dome) were relatively modest.
None has survived. The skills that had created Andrei Bogoliubsky’s soaring roofs were not available to Kalita, for Mongol rule had cut the Russian north-east off from European craftsmen, and the khan had drafted its native master-stonemasons to work at Sarai. Dilapidated though Vladimir’s great cathedral had become by 1326, it would be many more decades before an architect in Moscow could better it.